John Stuart Mill once described conservatives as “the stupid party.” Clinging to tradition and established usage, the conservative is suspicious of radical change. Edmund Burke once wrote, “Old establishments are tried by their effects. If the people are happy, united, wealthy, and powerful, we presume the rest.”
The strength of conservatism depends on the success of existing institutions.
Of course, even in the midst of the greatest prosperity, there is poverty. The good effects of a successful system have many exceptions. Worse still, prosperity helps to make people complacent and fat. Therefore, even the most happy, united and wealthy people do not exist in blessed perfection.
Revolutionary voices from the right and left are out there. No matter how good the times, overall, these voices denounce the system as a failure and call for radical changes.
The true conservative shivers at the prospect of revolutionary changes. He instinctively knows that political innovation often leads to disaster. The conservative’s impulse to stand pat might be expressed in the statement, “If it isn’t broke, why fix it?”
The malcontents of the extreme left and right do not agree. To their way of thinking, an imperfect system is a broken system. If only we followed theories X, Y or Z, then we would enjoy more prosperity, we would have further benefits.
Edmund Burke, the greatest of conservative thinkers, once said that good governments “are not often constructed after any theory; theories are rather drawn from them.”
One might say that a political system which produces peace and prosperity is something of a lucky hit. The formula for success is not understood theoretically in advance. Successful practice is noted after the fact. “The means taught by experience may be better suited to political ends than those contrived in the original project,” wrote Burke. The example of ancient constitutions and previous history is always a better guide than abstract theory.
Nevertheless, we are constantly entertained by theorists and their theories.
There is a kind of foolishness in modern reformism and revolutionary theory. Often the prescribed political cure is worse than the disease. Thirty years ago there was an illustrated children’s book, whose title has faded from my mind, which described a kingdom where mice had become a serious problem. The king brought in cats to rid the kingdom of mice. But the cats were also a nuisance, so the king brought in dogs to chase away the cats. But the dogs, in their turn, proved inconvenient. Lions were brought in to deal with the dogs and elephants were used to rid the kingdom of lions. At last, the king brought back the mice.
Every solution brings its own train of evils.
The United States has enjoyed the greatest peace and prosperity of any major country in history. Since our victory in World War II, the country’s institutions have kept the same general structure. The IRS and the Federal Reserve, the Council on Foreign Relations and the United Nations, have existed throughout this period of unprecedented prosperity. (This is important to keep in mind.)
If we have problems with today’s institutions, does that mean our current prosperity is somehow false? Have our institutions undergone subtle changes that suggest the future approach of catastrophe?
Revolutionary agitators from both ends of the political spectrum say that our system is broken. Left-wing malcontents love to showcase pockets of poverty, instances of child abuse, corporate evil-doing and the destruction of the environment. Right-wing malcontents dwell upon the injustices of the IRS, the depredations of the Federal Reserve and the oppressiveness of federal law enforcement.
Theorists of the right and left agree that our system is hopelessly corrupt. Those in power are often described in extremist literature as “sociopaths.” The Establishment itself is rated as “totalitarian.” The vices and abuses of our imperfect system are depicted and emphasized without pointing to success of the system, to the general prosperity of the moment, to everyday justice and harmony that takes place on a huge scale.
The left malcontents want to nationalize all industry and run the country like the Post Office. The right malcontents want to stop the black helicopters, eradicate the IRS and the Federal Reserve, and weaken the national center of power — even to the point of breaking up the Union.
The public is not very receptive to these views for one simple reason. Our country enjoys relative prosperity (which makes “the stupid party” the nominal ruling party of the moment). Americans do not suffer the afflictions of Bangladesh or Tanzania. We do not live under a totalitarian regime like the one in China. Our police do not regularly employ torture as their main investigative tool, as the police do in Russia and other former Soviet republics. The average American is pretty lucky to be an American. Consequently, the revolutionary agitation of left and right wingers isn’t terribly appealing to most Americans. If we suffer at all in this country, it is from being overweight and ill-disciplined. If our public education system is inferior it is because most children have been emancipated from obligations of obedience and respectfulness.
Our will to resist self indulgence has been systematically broken down by commercials, by pop culture, by thousands of messages passed along by teachers, preachers and television broadcasters. Americans are taught to seek entertainment. Logically, the doctrines of self-denial and self-control would negatively impact consumer spending, which is a leading economic indicator. If narcissism disappeared from our midst, businesses would close and millions would be thrown out of work. The wheel of consumption and entertainment, it seems, must spin faster and faster. Will the merry-go-round continue, or will it break down at some future point?
The radicals of the left and right are waiting in the wings. They already accuse the system of failing. They have already sharpened their daggers.
What if the system actually sputtered, even for a moment?
It is a scary situation to contemplate, especially when the right and left revolutionaries are almost indistinguishable. Twenty years ago I read a book which explained the evil machinations of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations. The book was written by a communist who was attempting to show the evil hand of capitalist totalitarianism. Subtract the overt call for revolution, change a few phrases here and there, and the entire text could have been published by the John Birch Society.
The fact that malcontents from the left and right vilify the same cast of characters deserves more than a wink. There is method to this madness. People with opposing views on religion and social organization might easily find the same common enemy. After all, those who want power are always opposed to those who already have power. The far left and right both attack existing elites because they wish to displace those elites. They dream of the day when the centers of power are occupied by those who think as they do.
This is only natural. And when it comes to a crisis don’t be surprised if you see both political extremes making common cause against the center. And don’t be surprised if, as William Butler Yeats wrote, “the center cannot hold.” Until now our wealth has protected us from the seductions of malcontents and revolutionists. Should the system falter, however, wild theories and wild theorists will win millions of adherents.
Should our central banking system and the IRS be eliminated? Should the Federal Government be emasculated?
Those are not easy questions.
The far left and right, however, will agree on all these points, not realizing that our flawed institutions — however much subverted by foul practice — are important to our national security. This is shown in Niall Ferguson’s new book, “The Cash Nexus,” where Ferguson describes what is called “The Square of Power.” At each corner of the square we find a key mechanism: (1) parliament, (2) the tax bureaucracy, (3) the central bank, (4) the national debt. “To put it simply,” writes Ferguson, “the exigencies of war finance had led, by the 18th century, to the evolution of an optimal combination of [these] four institutions.”
This “optimal combination” allowed the costs of war “to be spread out over time, thus ‘smoothing’ the necessary taxation,” writes Ferguson.
It is notable that the far left and right see no real foreign enemy threatening our national existence. The revolutionaries from both extremes are at war with the existing power structure. Therefore, they care nothing about foreign threats. In fact, they would prefer to dismiss such threats as “nonexistent.” They might even ally with foreign powers in hopes of receiving clandestine support.
A conservative, as a member of “the stupid party,” instinctively resists radical theories and revolutionary transformations. However plausible the accusations leveled against the current elite, however righteous the cause of liberty, Edmund Burke warns us that physicians of state who undertake to “regenerate constitutions, ought to shew uncommon powers.” We have reached our current institutional arrangement through centuries of trial and error. Perhaps it can be argued that it has been centuries of error — and perhaps we are about to pay for that error — but we need to be cautious and sober in our rhetoric as we approach a “time of troubles.”
It is possible that where one demon has been expelled, 10 will enter in his place.